TV is showing us the dark side of playing God

Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Ted Danson as Michael on NBC's The Good Place. (Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)
Kristen Bell as Eleanor, Ted Danson as Michael on NBC's The Good Place. (Photo by: Justin Lubin/NBC)
Published January 11 2018

Theologians and other thinkers have described God in several ways over the centuries. God is a stern father. Heís a mechanistic prime mover. Heís a watchmaker. And, most recently, in the NBC sitcom The Good Place, God is a television showrunner.

Several recent TV programs suggest that creating a television show is a lot like creating the world. Small-screen hits like The Good Place, Westworld, American Gods and Blood Drive tease out the idea that thereís something divine about television. They acknowledge that the idiot box has become an idol.

Now in its second season, NBCís The Good Place, Michael Schurís comedy about the afterlife, makes this dynamic particularly clear. Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) wakes up to find herself in heaven, or the Good Place. Though Michael (Ted Danson), the angel architect of the Good Place, thinks Eleanor is a selfless humanitarian who spent her life fighting for the poor and needy, she knows sheís there because of a glitch. (On Earth, she was a self-centered jerk.)

The first season of the show is devoted to Eleanorís efforts to stay in the Good Place; she tries to become a better person by studying ethics with her maybe soul mate, professor Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper).

In the Good Place, Michael runs the show, creating a small neighborhood out of nothing. He chooses the inhabitants of his neighborhood via an elaborate ranking system based on the residentsí lives on Earth. (Life is, it turns out, one long audition.)

In the hereafter, Michael sets up narrative threads, matches soul mates together and tries to make sure everyone is happy eternally. God has a script and a story line; weíre all just actors in his divine plot arc. But Michael is less an all-seeing, all-powerful beneficence than he is a harried middle manager.

The mistake that placed Eleanor in the Good Place takes a toll on Michaelís careful construction. Giant ladybugs storm through the town and a giant sinkhole opens up, while Michael flaps and grouses and faces a retirement, which will involve eternal torture for failing to get his project right. Heavenly cancellation is no joke.

The twist in the seasonís final episode (spoiler!) is that the cancellation isnít heavenly at all. Michael isnít a divine architect; heís a demon. The Good Place is in fact the Bad Place. Eleanor isnít in heaven as a mistake; she has been in hell the whole time.

Michael placed her in a scenario where she thinks everyone is better than her, which is a form of personalized torture. After Eleanor figures out the plot, Michael erases her memories and the memories of Eleanorís companions, running them through endless retakes. Meanwhile, Michaelís minion demons get more and more restless and demand rewrites.

This vision of an evil, sadistic devil-God operating as a television creator is surprisingly common in contemporary television. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the robotics mastermind who creates the Western theme park in Westworld, is essentially a prestige television showrunner, orchestrating a ballet of death, sex and surprising plot twists with callous indifference.

Wednesday (Ian McShane), the trickster God Odin on American Gods, is more personable than Ford, but no less manipulative. In Syfyís sadly canceled Blood Drive, the rabid, immortal Julian Sink (Colin Cunningham) runs the reality television show of the same name, in which vile, vicious contestants race across a postapocalyptic landscape, feeding their vehicles with blood.

In each of these shows, a powerful creator sets up a complex plot to torment humans for sadistic entertainment. This setup presents television as a complicated, intricate act of creation, requiring a divine spark ó a divine spark that panders to humanityís worst impulses.

The divine plan, as seen on TV, is a world in which God designs fiendish plot arcs to eviscerate us all.

Religion used to provide society with a shared communal point of reference ó a common well of stories and ethical examples. Now, that point of reference largely comes through popular entertainment, and television in particular.

The Good Place is a comedy, but it takes the ramifications of television as moral touchstone seriously.

While The Good Place tries to take on religious themes, itís also hesitant about its ability to do so. Michael is a demon, and an incompetent one at that. If Godís a showrunner, The Good Place says, weíre all in a lot of trouble ó which, in fact, we are.

Noah Berlatsky is the author of "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics." Follow @nberlat.